Thirteen-year-old Karlene Bridges is the best speller in her family, her hometown, and maybe even all of Shirley County, South Carolina. The trouble is, every time she makes it to the final round of a spelling bee, she chokes. But when Mrs. Harrison, the new Latin teacher, offers to coach her, Karlene's spelling jinx miraculously disappears. The year 1969 is turning out to be her best ever, especially since she develops a surprising crush on her best friend, Billy Ray.
But as soon as Karlene aims to compete in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D. C., her father's drinking begins to spell trouble. How is a girl supposed to hold her family together, savor her first kiss, and become the best speller in America before the end of eighth grade?
Debut novelist Karon Luddy spells out adolescence with unwavering faith and sass in a novel about big dreams and the people who make them happen.
About the Author
Karon Luddy earned her MFA in creative writing from Queen's University of Charlotte, North Carolina, where she lives with her family, and teaches writing to college students. Spelldown is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
1: fussy about small details
2: requiring great precision
"Desi, will you please spell buccinator?" Mrs. Helms, the Giver of Words, says into the microphone.
Desi sighs and clenches his fists. "May I have the definition, please?"
"A thin, flat muscle that forms the wall of the cheek, assisting in chewing and in blowing wind instruments," she says.
Desi grits his teeth, flexing his buccinators, the twangy odor of fear coming through his pores. It's Friday afternoon, the first week of October. Out of twenty contestants, only Andrea, Desi, and I remain in the Red Clover Junior High Spelling Bee. And I'm sweating like a piglet. Every time I fidget, my chair squeaks. There's a crowd of about a hundred seated on the bleachers. Mainly teachers, honor-roll students, and parents of the spellers.
"Mr. Sistare will you please spell the word?" Madame Blah-blah-blah's acting all stoical, sitting at the table with the principal, but she's wearing a low-cut gray silk shirt that shows off her wrinkly cleavage. My sense of humor irritates the pee out of her.
"Yes ma'am." Desi pronounces the word, then spells b-u-c-k-i-n-a-t-o-r.
"I'm sorry, Desi, that is incorrect," Mrs. Helms says in her flat voice. At least we don't have to hear an obnoxious bell ring like we do at the county spelling bee.
Desi walks over, climbs the bleachers, and sits beside Mrs. Harrison.
"Now, will our final two contestants please stand for the final round?" Mrs. Helms says. We both stand up. "Andrea, will you please spell buccinator?"
Andrea smoothes out her red plaid skirt, pronounces the word, and spells b-u-c-c-i-n-a-t-o-r.
"That is correct, Andrea."
"Karlene, will you please spell contumacious?"
I know the definition, but want to stall. My eyes wander over to Daddy. He's sitting on the bottom row of the bleachers with his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands, as if he's watching a basketball game. He looks sober and handsome in his clean work clothes. "May I hear the definition, please?"
"Contumacious means stubbornly disobedient or rebellious."
In a clear voice, I say the word, then spell c-o-n-t-u-m-a-c-i-o-u-s.
"That is correct. Now, Andrea, will you please spell hierarchy?" Mrs. Helms pronounces it high-ar-ky.
Andrea makes a wimpy sound like a balloon going flat. "Will you say the word again, please?"
Mrs. Helms mispronounces it again. My heart skips a few beats for Andrea.
Andrea clears her throat. "May I have a definition, please?"
"It's an organization whose members are arranged in ranks according to power and seniority."
Andrea mispronounces it, then spells h-i-g-h-a-r-c-h-y.
"I'm sorry, Andrea, that's incorrect."
Andrea gives me a weak smile and walks away, pulling her kneesocks up along the way. I can't believe she didn't know that word. The Giver of Words ought to be able to pronounce the words, or else give up the job.
"Karlene, will . . ."
Mrs. Helms is talking, but I'm not paying attention. I breathe deeply, trying to oxygenate my sludgy blood, so that I can remember the contest rules about pronunciation. The judges may not disqualify a speller for asking a question.
"Excuse me, Mrs. Helms, but I'm concerned about that last word. Is it possible for you to check the pronunciation before we proceed?"
She gives me a double shot of the evil eye. "Pardon me?"
Not a soul in the gym moves. A sharp pain spirals through my temples. She's the only teacher I've ever had who I can't get close to, not even a little bit. I always try to show her respect like I've been taught, but sometimes it's difficult. She's pretty ignorant for a teacher.
I fire the second stone from my slingshot. "Ma'am, in my dictionary, hierarchy has four syllables, and it's pronounced high-er-ar-ky."
Mrs. Helms's face looks like an old vase about to shatter. Mr. Barrineau whispers in her ear, then flips to the word in the dictionary, and they discuss it.
She rises from her chair. "Andrea, I beg your pardon, I mispronounced the word." She says in a higher, louder voice, "Will you please rejoin us?"
My blood is swishing through my arteries. Andrea comes up and stands beside me, and whispers thank you.
"Now, Andrea, will you please spell dastardly?"
"Dastardly. D-a-s-t-a-r-d-l-y. Dastardly," Andrea says.
"That is correct. Karlene, will you please spell floriferous?"
"Yes ma'am, I will! Floriferous. F-l-o-r-i-f-e-r-o-u-s. Floriferous." I enunciate every syllable.
"That is correct. Now, Andrea, will you please spell gerenuk?"
"May I have the definition?" she says, her voice shaky.
"A reddish brown antelope native to East Africa."
"Gerenuk. G-e-r-i-n-u-k," Andrea says.
"I'm sorry, Andrea. That is incorrect."
"Karlene, will you please spell gerenuk?"
"Gerenuk. G-e-r-e-n-u-k," I say.
"That's correct. Now, will you please spell pluripotent?"
I love this word. I breathe in and out, using the strategy Mrs. Harrison taught me, playing Hangman in my head. On the blackboard of my mind, I visualize the consonants first, leaving spaces for the vowels: pl r p t nt. Then I fill the blanks with vowels: u i o e. The word is crystal clear on the board, so I pronounce it and spell p-l-u-r-i-p-o-t-e-n-t.
Mrs. Helms just stands there like an ice statue. The silence is deep and wide, as if time has stopped. But then Andrea starts clapping. Then Desi stands up and claps, and Mrs. Harrison lets out an earsplitting whistle as if I'd just scored the winning basket. The rest of the crowd starts to applaud, and Daddy raises his hands high above his head, clapping, clapping, clapping.
The principal says into the microphone, "Congratulations, Karlene. I'm proud of you and all the great spellers who competed today. I'd also like to thank Mrs. Helms and all the parents and teachers for their participation." He walks over to me and leans close. "It took a lot of courage to challenge that pronunciation."
"I felt it was the right thing to do, sir."
"Right or not, it was very brave," he says, with a look that says I'll probably suffer for it. Over at the table, Mrs. Helms gathers her things quickly, then slips out the side door. God Almighty. I didn't mean to embarrass her. Maybe if I kill her with kindness for a few weeks, things will work out.
Several of my friends and a few teachers come up and congratulate me. Daddy waits on the sidelines until everyone has left, and then comes over and puts his arm around my shoulder. "You done good, baby."
"Thanks." I stand there with his arm around me, feeling awkward. He's never gotten off work to come to any of my extracurricular activities before. "Why aren't you at work?"
"I told them I'd be late today because of your spelling bee."
Mrs. Harrison walks over and congratulates me, then offers Daddy her hand. "You must be Mr. Bridges. I'm Mrs. Harrison."
Daddy shakes her hand gently. "Mrs. Harrison, it's nice to meet you. Karlene talks about you all the time." Then he says to me, "You need me to take you home before I go to work?"
"I'm spending the night at the Harrisons'. I'm going to babysit tomorrow."
"Oh, I forgot about that." He squeezes my hand. "Don't forget to call your mama." He walks away like Father Knows Best in dungarees.
Copyright © 2007 by Karon Luddy